We see news clips of people burning American flags and shouting “Death to America.” We see people running through urban streets seeking retribution against neighbors of a different religion or ethnicity. We see dead bodies in their own homes, showing evidence of rage. And we wonder what type of society brews up this toxic cocktail of violence and hate. It seems so distant from our lives. And then hate comes home.
On Passion Sunday, April 13th, a man with a shotgun killed two people outside the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas. He then proceeded to Village Shalom, an assisted living center, where he killed a third person. It was quickly established that the gunman was a white supremacist, a Klu Klux Klan member with a history of anti-Semitism. This was no random act of violence; it was a calculated attempt to rent asunder the fabric of our nation. This crime opened a door to a piece of our national life that persists in spite of all our attempts to eradicate it or simply deny it. This was hate coming home.
What can be learned from this tragedy? First, it should sober us up. We live in a nation of enormous diversity. We have made good progress in learning to appreciate and even celebrate the richness of our national family. Having lived abroad for 10 years, I have seen countries adjusting to a type of diversity that became common place in America a century ago. We are much further along than many other countries, but we have not yet arrived. We must still strive to carry the journey further. We must resist any attempt to turn back the clock on what we have accomplished; vigilance is still necessary. To dismantle the safeguards we have put in place would impoverish the lives of all of us.
Second, we should be mindful that there are no “innocent” prejudicial or stereotyping remarks. We have been reminded anew that there is still hate in the homeland. We must walk through our lives as if we were walking through a shop full of crystal figurines sitting on glass shelves. We want to be careful that we don’t set in process something we did not intend. Remarks like “She hoards money like a Jewish banker” or “He drinks like an Irishman” or “She dresses like she’s still in the ‘hood” or “What a redneck” may seem like harmless remarks; we’ve all heard them—maybe even said them. The killings last Sunday remind us that in a world where hate is always looking for the slightest license to justify itself, we should tread carefully as we speak. The writer of the book of James warned of the power of our words, writing “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body [James 3:5b-6a].” The Apostle Paul cautioned us to be careful as we speak, instructing us: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt [Col. 4:6].” Prejudicial remarks never meet the standard of “full of grace, seasoned with salt.”
Lastly, it is not lost on us that this killing took place on Passion Sunday. As Jesus reached the summit of the Mt. of Olives and saw Jerusalem in all her splendor pulsing with the excitement of Passover in the holy city, he knew the violence that waited in the wings, lamenting:
If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God. [Luke 19:42-44]
Jerusalem is the world, and the world is Jerusalem. As we wind down Holy Week and cannot help but anticipate Easter Sunday, we can be hopeful; but we must not be naïve.
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State